“If you have a choice, why not try something you’ve never had before?”
-Takeshi Shizuko, “Anniversary Oden,” Samurai Gourmet
Having just finished another J-drama food series, Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, Netflix rightly suggested I try Samurai Gourmet, a television series with a lighter spirit and distinct sense of humor. In addition to the food and individual stories, I was drawn to the series by its main actor, Naoto Takenaka, who I loved in the live action music series, Nodame Cantabile.
Gourmet Samurai is an episodic series spanning 12, 25-minute episodes. Played by Takenaka, Takeshi Kasumi is a retired salaryman unsure of how to fill his now free days. Thanks to the suggestion of his wife, Kasumi steps out in search of a hobby and stumbles across the joy of dining out. His food discoveries are always accompanied by a hallucination (or is it?) of a wandering samurai. This samurai, played by the very handsome Tamayama Tetsuji, helps Kasumi overcome his misgivings, like drinking in the middle of the day, eating properly in a formal setting, and even dealing with grouchy chefs. The more Kasumi learns from the samurai, the more he is able to appreciate his new found hobby.
The general structure of each episode involves Kasumi going out and discovering a new culinary delight, be that at a local bar, fancy restaurant, or street-side stall. Most of the time, he dines on his own, which makes sense since much of his explorations occur in the middle of the day when many people are still at work. I think Kasumi’s comfort with eating alone is indicative of his firm resolve, despite his sometimes timid appearance. At times he sits at the bar, like many an avid food lover would do to watch the chef at work with the perk of prime access; other days, he sits at a table that can easily seat four. Instead of worrying about others’ judgement, he focuses on the menu and savors every single bite. Emotions play themselves openly across his face, betraying every taste of delight or disgust.
The foods covered in the series include ramen, a guest house breakfast featuring mackerel, yakiniku, a store-made bento, spaghetti neapolitan, Italian fine dining, croquettes, yakitori, oden, hayashi rice, and much more. Sometimes the episode focuses on one particular dish, while at others we are treated to multiple courses. My favorite features include the guest house breakfast, the traditional coffeehouse meal, the Italian restaurant, Kasumi’s wedding anniversary oden, and the hayashi rice.
When Kasumi goes on the first solo trip since childhood, he stays at a seaside inn that includes breakfast with lodging. The house is humble, clean, and like a home away from home. His breakfast includes white rice, local mackerel, miso, natto, seaweed, pickled plums, and hot tea. While the meal is something that can be made by anyone at home, he savors the local twists, like the stronger salt indicative of the ocean setting. The music softly intensifies as he eats most of the meal, then suddenly pauses as he takes his first bite of the mackerel. The build towards this taste of the sea kick starts his memories of a similar beach trip taken as a boy with his friends. This was their first unsupervised adventure, and Kasumi’s first time enjoying dried mackerel. It was a memory of firsts, like a young fish making its way to the ocean to fully mature. While mackerel themselves don’t make this type of trip, I still like the imagery.
This is a series that begins with Kasumi’s retirement, but tells of beginnings. Kasumi gets to experience a life unlike any before. While this type of freedom hasn’t been felt since childhood, he now has the knowledge of many years lived. During his oden dinner with his wife, he muses on the comfort of ordering his usual and the mixed thrill and danger of trying something new. We see him grow in his confidence through each of these transient moments. We also peer back in time to his childhood, student life, and early years as a salaryman. Through the act of eating, Kasumi and the viewer are transported through time and space, like any good story.
I love interpretations on food of this nature. We spend such a large percentage of our life eating, so why not turn the necessity into a pleasure that stimulates the palate and spirit? I hope that a second series of Samurai Gourmet is not too long in coming, but if not, this series is one that can be re-watched in bites like your favorite food.
Rating: 2 dango
- 0 dango – average and forgettable.
- 1 dango – very good in its category.
- 2 dango – excellent show that is worth a try.
- 3 dango – exceptional show one must watch.